Copyright all Text and Images J.A. Hindle 2008
From the bridge, we had a view down the road in either direction. The traffic streamed by a hundred feet below us, a line of red and white lights marking out a surface that, when I had stood here ten years before, existed only in the imagination, and on the lines of a surveyor's map. If it had seemed unreal then, stood in the cold and tranquility of a winter's afternoon, surrounded by woods and fields and ubiquitous golf courses, it hadn't become any less strange now that they'd actually done it, now that whole hillsides had gone.
It was January 2006 and we were stood looking down at the Newbury bypass, during a tenth anniversary reunion of those that had fought the road's construction. I'd been walking with a friend from Middle Oak to a candlelit vigil at Donnington Castle, a few miles up the road's route. As with other anniversaries, Middle Oak had been chosen as the gathering point, even though it was now surrounded by both the bypass itself and sliproads that formed an interchange with the A4. I'd lived in the tree for three months at the height of the campaign and this was my first trip back after the road had opened. I wasn't particularly looking forward to seeing what had happened to the landscape since then; just how it was going to change had been etched on my mind only too vividly during the campaign. After the treetop evictions had come to an end, it seemed best to just walk away, to try and preserve the place in my memory, before it was stripped completely of its former charactersitics.
The tree seemed bigger than I remembered it; bigger by far than the growth accounted for by a mere ten years. Like I had grown smaller, or it echoed the fact that the piece of land it now stood on was a tiny patch compared to the sprawling, wood-lined field I remembered. By the time of the direct action campaign, after the compulsory purchase, the field had been left to grow fallow; home to deer and mice and crusties falling unconscious in the long grass after too much homemade wine.
Back in 2006, the crowd of fifty or so milled around, caught up with each other's old or older faces. At the sidelines a small contingent of press solicited - or consented to - a few interviews, a few trees were planted to augment the budding mini copse that was now developing on the land that would never again be touched by a tractor, nevermind deerfeet. Somebody read out a list of the thirty or so camps. And all around us were the still strange sliproads, the traffic, the absence of the hill.
The last time I'd seen the tree was during the first reunion - one year since the main campaign had started. The 2000 strong crowd that had gathered for that event seemed big at the time but was a small reflection of the magnitude of the campaign that had preceeded it. Speakers including Tony Benn and Charles Secrett - the director of Friends of the Earth at the time - addressed an audience that itself varied from punks and anarchists to equally outraged and increasingly empowered bastions of Middle England. It felt as though the virulent anti-roads campaigns that had characterised so much of the nineties were now breaking out into a genuine mass movement, that was poised to take on not just the issue of roads but the whole culture of unsustainable growth and consumerism, of a society out of balance with the natural order.
As in many highly charged scenarios, there were powerful and conflicting forces at work. Middle Oak, like the rest of the route, was then behind a high steel fence, which had been decorated with ribbons and posters as part of the day's demonstration. After a summer of fence dismantling and sabotage, it was hardly surprising that the fence was soon breached in several places, sending a minor legion into the area around the tree, some debating as to the rights and wrongs of crossing the line, a few vocally proposing their disagreement with damaging the fence at all. The police were suprisingly unprepared, with four bewildered horsemen looking on out of the January mist. It was only too predictable when the crowd descended the slope of the already-started cutting, when the machines and portacabins - everything there was to be found of the contractors - were first disabled or trashed, then set on fire.
It felt like natural justice to many of us at the time, like the contractors had it coming, like this was the will of the hill they had wounded. Looking back, it was as symbolic a turning point as anything else. The movement went on to take on grander targets; the G8, the WTO, capitalism itself - becoming at once more pertinent and more abstract; fighting concepts and institutions rather than their specific manifestations. As the road building programme was massively cut back and as the old Tory government that had come to symbolise so much of what was wrong about England melted away like a pack of comedy villians, others channelled their energies into fights like that against GM crops. But the unprecendenbted sense of inclusion that had been seen at Newbury was not to be repeated for some time. Bewilderment and caution at the turn things were taking played their part, as did the natural backwash and loss of focus to be found when any galvanising common enemy lies down and dies.
But the roads have since crept back; not fanfared like those of the Tories but creeping in under a covering fire of double speak and confused priorities. Despite having won - many times over - the argument that building new roads leads to more traffic, there remains everything to fight for. The government laud their public transport spending even as their cuts in subsidies for the railways stand to result in a doubling of ticket prices. And as for the once hoped for 'great revolution' in getting people out of their cars, we're not even at square one, lapping the board in reverse. The danger remains that greater ground will be given to a kind of plodding pseudo common sense, the kind that would take us to hell by numb consensus and unchallenged banality, that assumes car ownership is not just inevitable and inescapable but also an unassailable right, like our collective evolution had led us to this. The current profusion of cars may be part of some grand design but it's not, I suspect, one that any benevolent creator had a great deal to do with.
Whether or not a return to protests of the scale and style of Newbury is likely or even desirable and whatever their impact on transport policy today, great things still remain from the anti-roads campaigns of the nineties: what was best about them and the way they were fought, what they inspired and the breathing to life of the inspirations they drew on. It sometimes seems that it would be enough if what happened then was simply remembered, if the enthusiasm, the raw and fiery spirit that drove it all on could be imparted; not just for those fighting new roads, but for anyone acting on behalf of the environment at any level. And that is a truly great need.
The bridge we'd been standing on last January was not far from Donnington Castle, the last leg of a walk we both knew we should take as a kind of reluctant bearing of witness. On the way up we'd passed hallmarks of the landscape we remembered, now utterly changed; the road crashing through the bottom of what had been the long, beech-lined avenue of Bagnor Lane, the banks of the river Lambourne - formerly one of the cleanest rivers in England - now hidden with disfiguring concrete bridges. The charged and hallowed landscape that had stood unchanged here for so long sat mauled and barely recognisable, an antechamber to suburban sprawl and a more convenient and desperately mundane future. Or perhaps, a mundanely desperate one.
Over and under the bridge, the dusk hung dirty and brown. The wind had got up, cruising down the route like a ghost or a song of displacement. Somehow though, if only just, there was still some consolation to be had, knowing we'd done our best to fight it, that many more places had been spared the same fate. All the same, the shattered landscape echoed too what had happened to many people here, just as many others found a new sense of strength through the protests. Often the two went hand in hand, reflecting a world that has itself become both more troubled and more resolved to put matters right.
The bridge took us over the gathering dark, like our memories themselves were only now bridged by prosthetics, or leaps of an unlikely faith. We arrived at the castle in time for the lights and the last verse of an old lament which everyone knew but normally never admitted to, pretending we weren't really hippies these days, and had never sat in the green of a wood in the summer when the future felt as simple as firelight and music and a fellowship closer than blood.